Patrick Robinson searched through sticks, debris, laurel leaves and metal roofing. He paused. 

The picture sat unscathed. It showed an infant, touching noses with a dog. One quiet moment  found among the destruction in Haywood County after some of the most catastrophic flooding the area has ever seen. 

“I was like, ‘Man, I gotta get this out of here,’” Robinson said. 

Robinson is a land search field team member from Waynesville, North Carolina, deployed to sweep the riverbanks, assess structural damage and ensure no one was left behind.

“It’s unreal when you first get in there and see what water can do,” he said.

On August 17, Tropical Storm Fred reached Western North Carolina bringing more than 10 inches of rain to Haywood County. The Pigeon River running parallel to the main road of Cruso rose to 20 feet, flooding the area in less than an hour and taking out everything in its path. 

The devastation was clear. In Haywood County, more than 700 homes were damaged. Property damage totaled more than $40 million. Ninety-four people required shelter.

Six died. 

Now, four weeks after the rain, its citizens are picking up the pieces of their broken town, together. So many things can’t be replaced. Family photo albums. Heirlooms. Books passed down with generations’ worth of annotations. But the community in Haywood County works to preserve its homes, livelihoods and memories. And they cherish what they find. 

Robinson slipped the photo into his pocket and continued his mission. When the team regrouped at the Cruso Community Center, he passed the photo along to volunteers. 

“If my house got washed away, I would probably want the pictures more than anything else,” he said.

Chelsea White-Hoglen is one of the community volunteers who began collecting the photos, working to reunite them with their owners. 

For White-Hoglen, who lives nearby, seeing the suffering of close friends was part of the reason she helped create We Are WNC, a grassroots organization contributing to relief efforts across Haywood County. White-Hoglen has been working seven days a week, for up to 12 hours a day. Sometimes with her 1-year-old son, Noble, in tow. 

“I am tired, but I was raised by this village out here,” she said. 

For weeks, residents waited for news from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that aid was on its way. So the people of Haywood County came together and took care of each other. It’s just what they do, said Kristy Kirton, who grew up in the area. 

“We’re strong people, we’re proud people,” she said. “You always help someone when you can.”

The devastation

When the Pigeon River floods, historically, the citizens of Cruso have found shelter at the higher elevation provided by Cruso United Methodist Church, a tradition attributed to a woman named Betty Henson, said Pastor Peter Constantian. 

Henson, who passed away in 2020, lived in a blue house across the street from the church. When she was younger and there was a chance of flooding, she would run to the church’s higher ground and open the doors to the community. Constantian wanted to honor that legacy.

But on August 17, church leaders who tried to reach the church couldn’t get there. In the middle of the main road, a boulder had fallen from a nearby cliff, blocking both lanes of traffic. 

It wasn’t until the next morning that Constantian was able to reach the church doors. 

Displaced mobile homes were scattered across the main street. Roads had washed away, and cars were in trees. Power lines had collapsed into the river. Houses were caved in. 

“It was a mess,” he said. “And it’s still a mess.” 

Gov. Roy Cooper made a request to the federal government for assistance 10 days after the flood. Before making a disaster declaration request, the state, local governments and FEMA conduct damage assessments, Press Secretary Jordan Monaghan said. 

The White House issued the disaster declaration on September 8—three weeks after the flood.

The declaration covers individual assistance for Buncombe, Haywood, and Transylvania counties. Through the individual assistance program, residents can apply for financial assistance and services to meet expenses and serious needs.

“It is intended to meet basic needs and help you get back on your feet,” the FAQ site states. “FEMA is not empowered to make you whole.”

Because of this delay in aid, White-Hoglen said it felt like her community is fending for itself. 

“Because we are often forgotten about and left behind, we are forced to step up and care for each other in a way that we are capable of, and we are strong enough to do,” she said. “But in a way that shouldn’t burn us out.”

At the same time, she is overwhelmed by the love, resilience, and care within her community. 

“What I have learned is that our community does know what is best for us, and we do know how to care for each other,” she said. “And that we need really strong support and investments from people with access to resources.”

Now operating out of the Cruso United Methodist Church, We Are WNC has partnered with the Canton Missional Network, a network of churches across Western North Carolina. In the church, fold out tables hold boxes of supplies. Community members can rent power tools and supplies to assist with debris removal and clean up. And three times a day, seven days a week, volunteers serve hot meals for anyone who needs it. 

The irreplaceable 

Like Robinson, many individuals began to find documents and photos floating in the river. Cruso United Methodist Church became the primary drop site for that family memorabilia.

A few days after the flood, one of the swiftwater rescue teams brought back a daily planner in a soft black ring binder. Listed inside was the name of its owner, Charlene Mungo, written in cursive in blue ink, along with an emergency contact, Frank Mungo. 

Due to the chaos of organizing volunteers, assisting search and rescue volunteers and reaching out to community members that Constantian hadn’t heard from, the planner was temporarily forgotten. 

Until Haywood County released the names of the victims of the storm. 

When Constantian read the list of names, two immediately stood out to him: Frank Mungo, 86, and Charlene Mungo, 83. 

“I’m looking at this thing, and it’s covered in sand and silt and dripping, the pages are still soaked, and there it is: (Charlene’s) name and her phone number,” he said. “I was like, ‘We gotta get this back to the family.’” 

Constantian gave the planner to Mark Tice, the pastor of East Fork Baptist Church, who was set to deliver the funeral service for the Mungos in South Carolina. 

The Mungoes were summer residents of Cruso at the Laurel Bank Campground. During those summers, they attended services at East Fork.

“They were like family to me,” Tice said. “They were like a great aunt and uncle.” 

The planner was Charlene’s life, Tice said. Inside were events, dates, notes. If it was important to Charlene, it was in there. 

“Charlene was one of those people that wrote a birthday card for everybody,” Tice said. “She acknowledged every anniversary, or every big date or event. And all of her resources for that were found in that planner.” 

Tice brought the planner down to Cayce, South Carolina, for the funeral service, set in a pristine church. The podium was made of crystal-clear plexiglass. He set the flood-soaked planner atop it, sand dripping onto the floor. After the service, everyone wanted to see it.

“It was just very special that those that were on the riverbanks that found it took the time to pick it up and dust it off,” he said. “That Peter took the time to walk it up to me. And then I could carry it down to Columbia and present it back to her family. And they were just exceptionally grateful.”

As with Charlene Mungo’s planner, the church has reunited several families with their photos and documents. 

A team of volunteers, with the help of a local photographer, have cleaned hundreds of images. They are kept in Ziploc bags, taped to a wall in the church and labeled with names of familiar faces, clues to reuniting each picture with its owner. 

“It’s kind of like playing a matching game,” White-Hoglen said. “If they have names on the back and we can match the photos with faces from other photos then we will, and we’re able to start building like family photo albums.” 

To clean a photo 

Kirton is a photographer who lives in Sylva, North Carolina, about 30 minutes away from Cruso United Methodist Church—but she grew up in Haywood County. And when she heard about the flooding, she knew she had to help. Somehow. 

“These people were my teachers and friends,” she said. 

Then she checked Facebook.

White-Hoglen, inundated with photos at the church, had created a Facebook group entitled Storm Fred Photo Recovery. Kirton came in to help the next day. 

One of their earliest revelations was that in order to clean a picture, you had to get it wet. 

First, you run cold water into the sink basin. Then, pinching the photo at its edges, move it through the water facedown. As soon as you notice color leaching from the front, stop. Place the photo on a paper towel faceup to dry. Hopefully, the sediment will begin to loosen, and the grit and grime will wash down the drain. A photo has to be cleaned layer by layer.  

White-Hoglen’s passion for restoring these photos stems from her friend Jon, who lost almost everything in the flood, including the RV he was living in. When she first reunited with him after his rescue, her initial questions concerned logistics: Does he have insurance? How will he get his RV back? 

But that wasn’t on his mind. Inside that RV, 70 years of family photos and 20 years worth of original artwork were lost to the flood waters. 

Now, White-Hoglen thinks of him as she continues to collect and sort these photos. For her own family, photos represent a legacy.

“It holds the love of the people who were in my life at that point, it holds the memories and the lessons that I learned and it holds the journey of our experiences,” she said. “We’re able to look back and remember who we were, how we got to where we are, looking at a picture.” 

Layer by layer

There is a wide, brightly-lit room inside Cruso United Methodist Church. In the early days of the recovery, photos lined the perimeter, all along the floor and counterspace, Kirton said. Now, there is a fold out table laid with snacks and drinks. Behind the food sits a small wicker basket labeled “prayer shawls.” Resting inside are small, hand-knit pieces of cloth, about six-by-six inches. 

“Made with love and prayers for you … We invite all who are in need of extra comfort to have one of our Pocket Prayer Shawls,” the label reads. 

For Kirton, cleaning each photo is her version of knitting a prayer shawl. 

As she runs each photo through the cool water, she says to herself: “Lord, help whoever this picture belongs to or whoever’s in this picture. Just help their family, and if they’ve been affected by this flood, wrap your arms around them. Let us get them the help they need. Let them be brave enough to ask for help.” 

Kirton hopes that rebuilding Cruso will be a lot like the process of cleaning a photo. Layer by layer, removing dirt and grime to recover the beauty that was lost. 

“This was really bad at first,” she said. “But there’s lots of people here. Let’s get it done. Let’s get the help we need. Let’s do the work. And it’ll all be good again.” 

This story was republished through a partnership with UNC Media Hub. UNC Media Hub is a collection of students from the various concentrations in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism working together to create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina. For more information on UNC Media Hub and our previous work, please visit our website.

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